“Fugitivism,” Shaun Wallace writes in the May 2020 issue of The Journal of Southern History, “enriches scholarly knowledge and understanding of enslaved fugitives and fugitivity in the antebellum South, introducing individual stories of fugitivity from the lower Mississippi River Valley. It makes an original contribution to the historiography by offering new perspectives and information that are sure to generate scholarly discussion, especially around the concept of fugitivism and its use in distinguishing resistance to slavery from acts of self-actualization waged by enslaved persons.”
The Journal of Southern History is published four times a year by the Southern Historical Association, which has its editorial offices at the Department of History, Rice University and its administrative offices at the University of Georgia. For more than eighty years, the Journal has published the best scholarship in the history of the American South.
Fugitivism is a comprehensive analysis of the role of escaped slaves in Louisiana and the Lower Mississippi Valley. During the antebellum years, over 750,000 enslaved people were taken to the Lower Mississippi Valley, where two-thirds of them were sold in the slave markets of New Orleans, Natchez, and Memphis. Those who ended up in Louisiana found themselves in an environment of swamplands, sugar plantations, French-speaking creoles, and the exotic metropolis of New Orleans. Those sold to planters in the newly-opened Mississippi Delta cleared land and cultivated cotton for owners who had moved west to get rich as quickly as possible, driving this labor force to harsh extremes.
Like enslaved people all over the South, those in the Lower Mississippi Valley left home at night for clandestine parties or religious meetings, sometimes “laying out” nearby for a few days or weeks. Some of them fled to New Orleans and other southern cities where they could find refuge in the subculture of slaves and free blacks living there, and a few attempted to live permanently free in the swamps and forests of the surrounding area. Fugitives also tried to return to eastern slave states to rejoin families from whom they had been separated. Some sought freedom on the northern side of the Ohio River; others fled to Mexico for the same purpose.
Fugitivism provides a wealth of new information taken from advertisements, newspaper accounts, and court records. It explains how escapees made use of steamboat transportation, how urban runaways differed from their rural counterparts, how enslaved people were victimized by slave stealers, how conflicts between black fugitives and the white people who tried to capture them encouraged a culture of violence in the South, and how runaway slaves from the Lower Mississippi Valley influenced the abolitionist movement in the North.
Readers will discover that along with an end to oppression, freedom-seeking slaves wanted the same opportunities afforded to most Americans.